On Monday morning, Shefali Patel, a manager at Morelli’s Pharmacy in downtown Toronto, had to reboot the pharmacy’s online vaccine booking system. People digitally clamouring for appointments crashed it. That’s never happened before.
“We have 310 people on our waitlist now,” said Patel. “Last week we had zero.”
That sharp increase in demand is owed to Ontario lowering the minimum age for the AstraZeneca vaccine this week from 55 to 40. This age-range covers the second most likely cohort to get COVID-19, people aged 40-59, of whom 121,000 have tested positive for COVID-19 in Ontario so far.
More 20-to-39-year-old Ontarians are getting infected, 159,000 so far, yet most remain unable to get vaccinated. Health experts say choosing which cohort to prioritize, and what vaccine to give them, is not clear-cut.
Patel said lowering the age threshold for the vaccine was a crucial decision. Morelli’s vaccines expire May 31. At the pace people over 55 were taking up appointments, many doses would have gone to waste. That’s no longer a concern, she said.
Pharmacists must now pivot from worrying about finding a way to use up their surplus of expiring vaccines to worrying about procuring doses for eligible people who want one.
Morelli’s and other pharmacies told the Star the deluge of gen-Xers seeking vaccines has overwhelmed them. The age group is eager to get their shots.
“I turn 40 this week and this is the first time I’ve been happy about it,” tweeted Mark Medley after the province’s decision to lower the age range was announced Sunday night.
A spokesperson for Loblaw, which runs its own pharmacies as well as Shoppers Drug Mart, told the Star demand exceeds supply now.
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The hundreds on Morelli’s waitlist, and thousands on other pharmacy waitlists around the province, don’t actually have appointments yet. They won’t until more shipments of AstraZeneca vaccines arrive.
Vaccine clinics, including pharmacies, only give people a specific time to come in once the clinics have received a dose for them. Booking people in ahead of time would just lead to mass cancellations, as sudden vaccine supply shortages are always looming.
Waitlisters, although eligible, are in limbo, with no assurance as to when they can actually get inoculated.
Patel said another shipment of vaccines was supposed to arrive by the end of the week, but that’s unlikely now, given two forthcoming AstraZeneca shipments to Ontario will be delayed. Some, however, skip the appointment process by visiting certain area pharmacies that offer unofficial walk-in vaccine appointments.
Omar Khan, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Toronto, said it’s good the age threshold for the vaccine has been lowered, considering the younger you are, the more likely you are to become infected with the virus. He said the decision was motivated by the surge of cases Ontario is experiencing. The province saw 4,447 new cases Monday, with test positivity reaching a record high 10.5 per cent.
“We have so few tools to fight this, we have to distribute them as effectively as possible,” said Khan.
Khan said the reason the biggest drivers of the virus — younger people working essential jobs — haven’t moved to the head of the vaccine queue yet is because they’re less likely to die from COVID-19 than older people. They’ll keep getting infected, but most of them will live.
“The decision to not lower the age range further came from looking at who is more likely to pass away without help from the vaccine,” said Khan. “It’s a grim calculus and it only happens because we don’t have much vaccine supply.”
Ben Cohen is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @bcohenn
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